Language affects patterns of brain activation associated with perceptual decision

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Mar 11;105(10):4004-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0800055105. Epub 2008 Mar 3.


Well over half a century ago, Benjamin Lee Whorf [Carroll JB (1956) Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA)] proposed that language affects perception and thought and is used to segment nature, a hypothesis that has since been tested by linguistic and behavioral studies. Although clear Whorfian effects have been found, it has not yet been demonstrated that language influences brain activity associated with perception and/or immediate postperceptual processes (referred hereafter as "perceptual decision"). Here, by using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we show that brain regions mediating language processes participate in neural networks activated by perceptual decision. When subjects performed a perceptual discrimination task on easy-to-name and hard-to-name colored squares, largely overlapping cortical regions were identified, which included areas of the occipital cortex critical for color vision and regions in the bilateral frontal gyrus. Crucially, however, in comparison with hard-to-name colored squares, perceptual discrimination of easy-to-name colors evoked stronger activation in the left posterior superior temporal gyrus and inferior parietal lobule, two regions responsible for word-finding processes, as demonstrated by a localizer experiment that uses an explicit color patch naming task. This finding suggests that the language-processing areas of the brain are directly involved in visual perceptual decision, thus providing neuroimaging support for the Whorf hypothesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Behavior
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Color Perception
  • Color Perception Tests
  • Decision Making*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Perception*